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International Journal of Philosophical Studies Vol.

16(2), 217–245

Richard Wagner and the Birth of The Birth of Tragedy1
Julian Young
j.young@auckland.ac.nz JulianYoung 0 2000002008 16 2007 & print/1466-4542 online Original Article 0967-2559Francis International Journal 10.1080/09672550802017915 RIPH_A_301957.sgm Taylor and Francis of Philosophical Studies

Nietzsche writes that the ‘real task’ of The Birth of Tragedy is to ‘solve the puzzle of Wagner’s relation to Greek tragedy’. The ‘puzzle’, I suggest, is the intermingling in his art and writings of earlier socialist optimism with later Schopenhauerian pessimism. According to the former the function of the ‘rebirth of Greek tragedy’ in the ‘collective artwork’ is to ‘collect’, and so create, community. According to the second the function of the artwork is to intimate a realm ‘beyond’ this world of pain and death. The audacity of The Birth is that it attempts to show that Wagner can have his cake and eat it: the ‘Dionysian’, musical, element provides a ‘metaphysical comfort’, while the ‘Apollonian’, verbal, element draws a ‘veil of oblivion’ over the metaphysical, thereby allowing the artwork to solidify community. Contrary to the standard Anglophone view, this perspective on The Birth shows that Nietzsche’s intimate association with Wagner during the period of its creation lies at the heart of its philosophical content. Keywords: Wagner; Nietzsche; Schopenhauer; salvation; art; community

Between May 1869 and April 1872 Friedrich Nietzsche, then professor of classical philology at Basel University, visited the Wagner household in Tribschen, Lucerne, about two hours away by train, twenty-three times. He had his own bedroom and an open invitation to use it whenever he wished (KGB II.2 6). Richard Wagner, the same age as his long dead but greatly missed father, became a substitute father, Cosima Wagner (née Liszt, later von Bülow), only twelve years older than himself, a cross between an older sister and a fantasy lover. The gaggle of Wagner/von Bülow children regarded him as an older brother. He was intimately engaged in the selection of their Christmas presents, and was one of the select few present at the first performance of the Siegfried Idyll at the bottom of the Tribschen stairwell, on the morning of Christmas Day 1870, in celebration of Cosima’s birthday. At Tribschen, Nietzsche found the home for which he had yearned ever since the death of his father brought about the loss of the Vaterhaus, the vicarage in Röcken, in which he had been born. In his letters, he referred

International Journal of Philosophical Studies ISSN 0967–2559 print 1466–4542 online © 2008 Taylor & Francis http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals DOI: 10.1080/09672550802017915


to the whole rumbustious menagerie of Wagners – children, horses, dogs, servants, chickens and cows – as ‘we Tribscheners’ (KGB II.1 58). The intellectual product of this happy intimacy was a number of preparatory lectures and essays which culminated in Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (it is important to give the work its full title), a work which appeared in 1872. It is dedicated to Wagner. Cosima was to receive her own dedication of the Five Prefaces to Five Unwritten Books as a Christmas present in the same year. In the Preface to The Birth Nietzsche says that the work is to be conceived as a ‘conversation’ with Wagner, a conversation he could have with no other person. And he reminds the composer that he was preparing The Birth at the same time (and often in the same place) as Wagner was writing the ‘magnificent’ ‘Beethoven’ essay, which he wrote in 1870 to celebrate the centenary of Beethoven’s birth. As The Birth was appearing in January of 1872 Nietzsche wrote Wagner: ‘everything that I have to say here about the birth of Greek tragedy would have been said more beautifully, more clearly and more convincingly by you’. And, in another letter, ‘if I am right in the main [about Greek tragedy] that means so much more that with your art you must be eternally right’ (KGB II.1 184, 185). This might merely be the routine flattery which Wagner demanded in large quantities, save for the fact that a couple of weeks later Nietzsche wrote to his intimate friend Erwin Rohde: ‘I have concluded an alliance with Wagner. You can’t believe how close we are to each other and how our plans [for the regeneration of art and culture] coincide’ (KGB II.1 192). Shortly thereafter he offered to abandon his professorship at Basel in order to work full time on behalf of the project of building Wagner’s opera house at Bayreuth. (Wagner declined the offer since it was precisely by retaining his professorial prestige that Nietzsche was most useful to the Bayreuth cause.) These biographical facts strongly suggest that Nietzsche’s first book must be heavily indebted to Wagner’s philosophical world-view. Surprisingly, however, Nietzsche’s admirers and scholars have typically gone out of their way to minimize the debt. Sometimes the motive has been to elevate Nietzsche’s brilliance and originality. That, almost certainly, is what underlies Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche’s idiotic and completely unsupported assertion that reading the works of the Tribschen period ‘we can see how absolutely the conclusions he arrived at through his general conception of Hellenism, disagree with those of Wagner’s art’.2 Sometimes, I think, mindful of the dramatic ‘turn’ of 1876 after which Nietzsche became the most hostile of all Wagner’s critics, scholars have sought to minimize his ‘Wagnerianism’ in order to emphasize the continuity of his thought. More often, though, I suspect, Nietzsche’s admirers have been mindful of the undeniably unpleasant elements in Wagner’s thinking: his anti-Semitism, his glorification of Bismarck’s assault on the French, and the rabid German chauvinism of his later years. Conscious of all this, as well as the close involvement of 218


the later Wagnerians with the rise of Nazism, they have been anxious, I think, to rescue Nietzsche from guilt by association. Whatever the motive, the dominant figures of Anglophone Nietzsche scholarship and translation agree with Elizabeth that Nietzsche owed no serious intellectual debt to Wagner. Thus Walter Kaufmann claims that it would be a ‘serious mistake’ to suppose that Wagner influenced Nietzsche intellectually, that Nietzsche was simply dazzled by his personality and music,3 while R. J. Hollingdale claims that Nietzsche’s relations with Wagner during the Tribschen period were in the nature of an ‘infatuation’ with his charismatic personality and that ‘with the fundamentals of [Wagner’s] “philosophy” he never agreed’.4 This ‘mere-personal-infatuation’ view is certainly mistaken. It is mistaken, that is, to suppose that Nietzsche worked out his ideas on the nature and significance of Greek tragedy independently of Wagner and then, out of personal loyalty, stuck onto the end of The Birth some Wagner propaganda as an ill-fitting afterthought, designed to keep the ‘master’ happy.5 It is perfectly true that many of the central ideas of The Birth – the normativity of ‘the Greek’ as a guide to the future and the understanding of Athenian tragedy as an essentially religious occasion, together with the assertion of the primacy of the chorus, and so of music, within it – appear remarkably early, in essays written while Nietzsche was still a pupil at Schulpforta. But it is equally true that his commitment to Wagnerianism developed remarkably early. This was due to his boyhood friend, Gustav Krug, who persuaded the ‘Germania’ society, composed of Nietzsche, Krug and Wilhelm Pindar, to purchase the score of Tristan und Isolde soon after it appeared in 1859 (and three years before its first performance in 1865) and to subscribe to the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which had been founded by Schumann in 1834 and was now dedicated to explaining and defending Zukunftsmusik (music of the future) in general, and Wagner’s music in particular. Nietzsche’s involvement with Wagner’s world-view is at least as early as his earliest serious reflections on Greek tragedy. We cannot therefore separate his views on the Greeks from his views on Wagner since the two developed in tandem during his teenage years. From the very beginning Nietzsche’s views on the Greeks were related to, and shaped by, the Wagnerian world-view. Already in 1864, four years, that is, before his first meeting with Wagner, we discover Nietzsche defending the Wagnerian music-drama as the rebirth of Greek tragedy: the ‘meaninglessness’ of today’s opera, he writes, which in their prime, the ‘fine-feeling Greeks’ would never have tolerated, is something from which we need rescuing by ‘the brilliant deeds and reform-plans of Richard Wagner’. In the great tragedies of the Greeks, Fritz asserts, the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk (artwork in which all the individual arts are collected together) is prefigured: in them, we find ‘that which the newest musical school sets forth as the “artwork of the future”; we find works in which the noblest of the arts found their way to a harmonious unification’ (HKG II, pp. 371–4). 219

Nietzsche sent his essays and lectures to the Wagners for discussion and scrutiny and thanked Wagner for the ‘many purely scientific problems’ that resolved themselves in their discussions (KGB II.8 Even Wagner’s devoted biographer. often insightful and important things Wagner has to say. *** To begin to understand how The Birth stands to Wagner. whatever his status as a composer. and ‘merereportage-of-his-master’s-voice’ view on the other. Surely a thinker of Nietzsche’s already well-developed stature and independence is unlikely to have been satisfied with the role of mere amanuensis. Personal infatuation cannot.INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES Nietzsche was. Wagner still comes over as a model of clarity and even relative economy compared with the likes of Hegel or Fichte.6 Should we then move to the other extreme and suggest that. calls Wagner’s theoretical writings ‘sham-intellectual maunderings’. And in any case. the idea that an empty windbag could have captured Nietzsche’s attention for so long is inherently implausible.1 19) Wagner and Nietzsche were equally devoted. Hollingdale claims that ‘Wagner’s pose as a philosopher and seer has no justification [since] his reasoning powers were of the slightest’. an atmosphere presided over by the spirit of Arthur Schopenhauer. The Birth is to be regarded as simply a presentation of the Wagnerian world-view by a more gifted wordsmith? Surely not. that he ‘deck[ed] out his writings with half understood terminology from Feuerbach and Schopenhauer’ in order to give them a ‘spurious air of profundity’. on the one hand. then. The fact that Wagner was a serious intellectual made Tribschen as much an intellectual as an emotional home to Nietzsche.7 It would seem. Ernest Newman. And Wagner sent Nietzsche the completed ‘Beethoven’ essay. But even in the whimsically chosen vocabulary and often tormented grammar of this translation. to whose ‘wonderfully deep philosophy’ (KGB II. that what is required is something between the ‘no-intellectual-influence’ view. as a would-be philosopher. The two were inseparable in the intensely geistige (spiritual-intellectual) atmosphere of the household. though sometimes nasty. nothing but an empty windbag. and at least six years before the intimacy of the Tribschen period. then.1 4). we need first of all to dispose of the idea that Wagner. somewhat in the way in which Plato’s early dialogues are taken to be mere unvarnished reports of the views of the historical Socrates. Aston Ellis. a committed Wagnerian before he even met Wagner. be the explanation of his engagement with Wagnerianism – though it certainly confirmed and intensified it. therefore.9 These judgments merely reveal the failure of their authors to grasp the. It is true that Wagner is not well served by the Victorian translation of W. the philosophy of music 220 . still his only English translator. to which the latter replied: ‘I can make clear to you how much there is for me there by way of learning your philosophy of music – that is. was.

The question I want now to address is why it seemed to Nietzsche that the Wagnerian world-view needed re-thinking and re-organizing. Ernst Fritzsch. reorganized and reappropriated. In sum. Wagnerianism became something. certainly. and in dedicating his Five Prefaces to Five Unwritten Books to her he adds ‘in deeply felt respect and as an answer to questions raised both by letter and in conversation’ (KSA I. then. a woman of considerable education and perspicacity. What I want to suggest is that during the period of the genesis of The Birth. Richard Wagner in his relation to Greek tragedy’. The critique 221 . I shall begin with ‘society’. He goes on to say that the work bears on issues recently aired by (the Wagner opponent) Eduard Hanslick and should therefore be of considerable interest to the musical world and to the thinking public in general (KGB II. It is important to note that this letter was sent to Engelmann and not to The Birth’s eventual publisher. The letter to Engelmann seems to me a vital clue. within which Nietzsche had been thinking since 1865. politics. its ‘real task is to elucidate the strange puzzle (Rätsel) of our times.RICHARD WAGNER AND THE BIRTH OF THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY – in an essay I wrote this summer entitled “The Dionysian Worldview”’ (KGB II. Wagner’s world-view functioned as a horizon or (in Gadamer’s sense) ‘presupposition’ of Nietzsche’s thinking alongside Schopenhauer’s world-view.1 133). The Wagnerian World-View Wagner’s philosophical thinking focuses on four interconnected topics: society. his critique of modern Western civilization. to be slavishly mimicked. *** Nietzsche’s first attempt to get The Birth published consisted in a letter to the Leipzig publisher Wilhelm Engelmann. not. p. but rather to be rethought. There is some central ‘puzzle’. art and religion.1 108) – the essay in which the Apollonian/Dionysian duality came to prominence for the first time in Nietzsche’s analysis of Greek tragedy. The Tribschen discussions were often three-sided. peppered Nietzsche with often searching questions about his philosophical work. What I want to suggest in this article is that during the Tribschen period. when Nietzsche speaks of ‘we Tribscheners’ he refers to an indissoluble unity of heart and mind. The letter says that while the work has something radically new to offer Greek philology. Had it been sent to the latter one might have been tempted to dismiss the placing of Wagner in the centre of the picture as a piece of judicious flattery. with Wagner’s Civilizationskritik. To find out what this might be we need a overview of Wagner’s philosophical thinking in general. who was Wagner’s publisher. ‘enigma’ or ‘riddle’ in Wagner’s thinking that needs sorting out. 754). Cosima.

p. and are in any case exhausted by work. it has left us with a pernicious legacy. as ‘mere steampower for its machinery’ (WMD. p. he argues. 222 . as in Greek tragedy. so that each caters to a particular niche-demand for pleasure. boredom becomes the salient mood of modernity. Not that this was Jesus’ doing. the ‘collective artwork’. Men have been turned into slaves of the machine. though in his later writings he prefers to point the finger at the French: that which is engulfing modern society is ‘French materialism’. 65). since all the work-weary audience wants is ‘distraction and entertainment’. The decay of modern society has a particularly deleterious effect on art.INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES focuses on two things: on Christianity and on the effects of industrialization and bureaucratization. If man is a worthless being. 62). p. Thus opera. dehumanizing ‘toil’. modernity is no longer capable of the Gesamtkunstwerk. In the consumer society people are ‘bored to death by pleasure’ (WMD. and in particular Italian opera. 85–7). that is to say. work has become nothing but wearying. have become indeed machines themselves (WMD. But since cheap consumerism produces ever-diminishing returns. Wagner was aware that. This has had a terrible effect on human well-being. 59). pp. mindless pleasures in the moments of leisure time allotted to them. then there is no reason not to treat him. The mechanical reproduction of artworks and consequent ‘democratization’ of taste mean that even the meanest among us can put the noblest types of art on his mantelpiece11 – which brings about a numbing of our ability to reverence great art. Since the masses are trained to be nothing but machine-parts. In general. that was the glory of Greece. the Christian world-view condemns us to life in a ‘loathsome dungeon’. In modern society. panders to an audience interested only in music – music for easy listening. When it comes to music and the theatre. Wagner’s point is that Christianity has been a destructive social force since it has left us with a legacy of self-contempt. Christianity no longer compelled belief. The Galilean carpenter was a kind of revolutionary socialist who really did practise the universal love he preached. for most educated people of his time.10 Christianity teaches us to despise all things earthly – while contradicting itself by simultaneously preaching universal brotherly love (WMD. then. Nonetheless. Part of Wagner’s anti-Semitism consists in seeing Jews as particularly productive of and given to consumerism. as modern industrialized society does. Not him but rather (here one notices the appearance of a key theme from the later Nietzsche) the Roman Church invented the otherworldly metaphysics that lead to contempt for this world (WMD. prepared the way for the inhuman character of modern economic life. Whereas the Greeks conceived happiness to be the normal human condition. And it has. Rather than being gathered together. so that each art-form played a vital role in the total artwork. 68). p. moreover. they are incapable of anything but cheap. the arts are now essentially separate.

RICHARD WAGNER AND THE BIRTH OF THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY The plots are a joke. and what distinguished it from the sick theatre of the present age? *** First of all. one talks through the gaps between the big arias. provides ‘the typical model of that ideal relation. Whereas in the past. 79–80). 37–41). critical in a way that stifles creativity. Nonetheless it is the Athenian theatre which. with ‘strong’ and ‘free manhood’ (WMD. selfish goals.) Insofar as we admire the Greek we should recreate it as a contemporary reality rather than a fossilized relic of the past. 113–15). (We might refer to this as Wagner’s anticipation of ‘postmodern nihilism’. How so? What. pp. And by no means should we admire everything Hellenic. of the artists and craftsmen working together to produce the medieval cathedral – modern society is a society of ‘absolute egoism’. pp. we succumb to the sense that ‘it’s all been done before’ and are reduced to producing mere recombinations of past artistic styles (WPW V. This means that the character of our age is essentially ‘critical’. for Wagner. Not. dreamt of by me. Wagner hastens to add. pp. Overwhelmed by ‘cultural history’. says Wagner. that we should seek a slavish restoration of the Greek in a ‘sham Greek mode of art’ (the nineteenth-century bank or railway station disguised as a Greek temple. and when one of them finally arrives one demands that it be repeated six times – which of course destroys any possibility of artistic unity and reduces the occasion to ‘a chaos of trivial sensations’ (WMD. for instance. with its sickly money soul’ of modern society. not. and the only force for cohesion is the state – the Hobbesian state whose sole function is to limit the harm one individual does to another (WMD. from (in my own rather than Wagner’s language) ‘information overload’. we were bound together by the fellowship of a common purpose – Wagner thinks. Precisely the main goal ought to be to replace the quasi-slavery. where the taste of art was coupled with the celebration of a religious rite in which the most 223 . Turning to the literary aspect of modern life Wagner observes that we live in a ‘paper’ culture. was Greek tragedy. *** So much for diagnosis of our parlous condition: what now of remedy? The key is Greece. p. sacred feast days. It occurred on none but special. 65). here. of theatre and public’ (WMD. the ‘universal journeymanhood. and above all Greek tragedy. We suffer from ‘lexicomania’. p. the ‘dishonourable slave yoke’ on which Greek economic life was based. Greek tragedy was not ‘entertainment’.) Wagner’s final major critique of modernity concerns the atomization of society. Everyone pursues their own. in particular. 63).

(WMD.) But secondly. (WMD. an Aeschylus. Most obviously.) Fellowship and community that extends beyond the merely biological fellowship of common ancestry. p. the model of what Wagner’s own music dramas are intended to be. that the artwork can only gather the community if it also gathers the arts. is actually like thinking of Tannhäuser as just words (KSA 7 1[1]. to appear like priests before the assembled populace of field and city. in the glorification and adoration of the god or hero in whose being they felt themselves includes as one common whole. given that Greek tragedy is the ‘model’ of the ‘ideal relation of theatre and public’. in Greece all division … all scattering of forces concentrated on this one point … all division of elements into separate channels must needs have been as hurtful to this unique and noble artwork as to the like-formed state itself. It collected. to think this way. 63) Notice that collection in the first sense is required by collection in the second sense. Fragmentation of the arts. could set before the Volk the deepest-meaning of all poems.INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES illustrious members of the state themselves took part as poets and performers. then the audience fragments into niche-audiences for the individual arts. and thus it could only mature but never change its nature. can only flourish where religion and myth flourish. that a Sophocles. Wagner holds. Nietzsche remarks in his notebooks. p. it collected all the arts. Thus art was conservative. How does the Gesamtkunstwerk gather – create and conserve – community? (Notice that. it was a ‘collective (Gesamt) artwork (kunstwerk)’. In contrast to fragmented modernity. If it fails to gather the arts. together into a single artwork. in particular words and music. in describing the Greek artwork we are simultaneously designing the ‘artwork of the future’. or gathered. entails fragmentation of the community. a populace filled with such high awaitings from the sublimeness of the artwork to be set before it. 63) Second. (Though the music is lost. assured of their understanding. it collected the whole community together and so created and preserved it as community. which leads us to think of Aeschylus or Sophocles as literary artworks. writes Wagner. Finally … they materialized 224 . The ‘Hellenic races’ solemnized the joint memorial celebration of their common descent [and so became Greeks] in their religious feasts. in two senses. that is.

(Since this conception is the direct opposite of 225 . p. The communal artwork flourishes ‘just so long as it was inspired by the spirit of the Volk … that is a communal spirit’. was essentially didactic (a quality Brecht. ‘religio-social convention’. as the rites of the temple descended into soulless convention the amphitheatre became the place where the essence of religion. are incorporated the essential laws of what is and what ought to be: men should know that they are not gods – witness the fate of Oedipus – and that power corrupts – witness the devastation wrought by Wotan’s quest for the ring of the Nibelungen. is the ‘creator’ of the artwork. therefore. within the span of a few hours. When aesthetic ‘egoism’ raised its head in fourth-century Greece ‘the people’s artwork ceased’ (WMD. Since it is the essence of the Volk (people) itself that comes to presence in the artwork. p. (WMD. why we should value the uni-cultural society. the tragedy. continues Wagner. Greek tragedy. Community or Volk. p. 89). in which the ‘national tradition’ – that is to say. feasted its eyes with its own noblest essence. was a religious act. received its articulation (ibid. 81) Tragedy. the ethos of a people. Indeed. is what we might call a unicultural society: a society in which.). 63) It was able to do this since its content was myth. In myths. its conception of the proper way to live – was articulated in the form of myth.RICHARD WAGNER AND THE BIRTH OF THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY their national traditions in their art. 84). It was the nation itself – in intimate connexion with its own history – that stood mirrored in its artwork. a view of ‘nature … men and morals’ (WMD. that is. It needs to be asked. that is to say (whether they be Greek myths or the Norse-derived myths of Wagner’s own music-dramas). (WMD. The ‘perfect work of art’ that was Greek tragedy became the abstract and epitome of all that was expressible in the Grecian nature. attempted to recapture). as Wagner conceives it. p. and most directly in the fullyfledged work of art. who also uses masks and music. that is to say. The individual playwright is merely the articulator of communal ethos. that communed with itself and. myth being a clarification and ‘condensation’ of ‘the view-in-common of the essence of things’. whatever lower-level varieties of lifestyle there may be. rather than any individual. in a clear sense it. everyone agrees on a fundamental conception of the good life – on fundamental ‘values’ – independently of those values being enforced by the state.

85–7). in other words. All that remains. By becoming members of a team (or perhaps one should say orchestra) they will overcome alienation between one human being and another. Wagner’s thoughts about community have considerable contemporary relevance. The communal artwork of the future.) A Volk. Within a Volk. since necessary action addresses collective want. very clearly. will work towards the communal goal. work will become once again meaningful and so satisfying. he wishes to retain the concept and reinvigorate the reality (WMD. p. or find it based thereon’. the individual charm of 226 . In other words it gives life a goal and meaning. collective need provides a basis. will reawaken ‘holy necessity’ so that life will reacquire meaning (WMD.INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES the twentieth century’s ‘multi-culturalism’. Whereas the Grecian artwork embraces the spirit of a fair and noble nation. recognizing alone the concept of ‘Christian man’. they would once more constitute a ‘beautiful life’: a life in harmony with nature and the seasons punctuated by frequent ‘recreations and festivities’ (WMD. Yet – this is the socialist strain in Wagner’s thinking – the importance of a flourishing Volk is not to exclude concern for universal humanity. pp. it will abolish classes – though not differences. is the pursuit of wants that are not only ‘egoistic’ but also ‘artificial’ and so meaningless – the state of modern society. writes Wagner. consists of all those who feel ‘a common and collective want’. the artwork of the future must embrace the spirit of a free mankind. according to their own station. localism versus cosmopolitanism. for ‘necessary action’. 399–401). delivered from every shackle of hampering nationality: its racial imprint must be no more than an embellishment. which now finds itself in such serious difficulties. The Volk creates and is created by the artwork. 85). In ‘On State and Religion’ Wagner explains that he parted company with the socialism of his youth when he realized that socialist politicians just wanted to rearrange the world of ‘toil’ whereas he wanted to abolish it. Moreover. is the notion of Volk. says Wagner. the only basis. as with medieval husbandry. Everyone. *** Central to the above thinking. to reform work practices so that. This raises the question of where Wagner stands on the issue of nationalism versus internationalism. and the individual finds meaning and community within the Volk. Authentic members are those who ‘recognise their individual want as a collective want. More specifically. Wagner observes that while the Roman Empire abolished the reality of Volk and medieval Christianity followed by abolishing the very concept. Where there is no necessary action there is only ‘caprice’.

Yet still. in the insistence that the content of myth is both inexhaustible and true for all times and cultures. 65)12 Wagner’s cosmopolitanism reveals itself. explaining his turn against Wagner. The perniciousness 227 . the differing ‘dialects’ of different cultures. p. be extended – by force of arms – to save a civilization dominated by French triviality from itself. the only task of the poet being to ‘expound’ it in a particular way to a particular audience (WMD. pp. interpretations as a model for the idea of universal myth as susceptible to indefinitely many different interpretations within. the middle-aged Wagner lost the ‘cosmopolitan taste’ of his youth. 399–421). alone possesses the needful qualities and forces of mind and spirit to bring about a nobler culture. that is. three years before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. of all continental countries.RICHARD WAGNER AND THE BIRTH OF THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY manifold diversity. 90–1). In ‘State and Religion’ he rather surprisingly attacks ‘patriotism’ as a harmful delusion (Wahn13). the older Wagner sought to reconcile his position with ultimately international concerns. because Germany. Or we might think of the way in which a Beethoven symphony contains within itself the possibility of infinitely many different. at least in theory. (WMD. but equally valid. Wagner says. fanned by the press. Patriotism is. p. or a single language encompasses a host of regional dialects. (WMD. too. How can Wagner consistently be both a nationalist and an internationalist? The ‘charm of diversity’ and ‘inexhaustibility of universal myth’ remarks suggests a synthesis between multi-culturalism and uni-culturalism somewhat in the way in which ‘the medieval cathedral’ encompassed a host of regionally and temporally diverse instantiations. the last refuge of demagogic scoundrels. to be concerned for ‘human interests far above mere patriotism’ (WMD. From this he concludes the necessity of monarchy with the king’s job being to stand above national politics. a Bismarckian jingoist. as it were. Quoting with approval Constantin Frantz. As Nietzsche put it in 1888. not a hampering barrier … We must love all men before we can rightly love ourselves. becoming instead reichsdeutsch (Ecce Homo II 5). in a word. 422) German ‘inwardness’ must. In later life Wagner’s nationalism took a different and much less palatable form. is responsible for the state of permanent – actual or incipient – warfare in which the modern world exists. that to extricate ourselves from the tyranny of [France’s] materialistic civilization … is precisely the mission of Germany. pp. It is harmful since it is simply an enlarged egoism which.

modernity is a sick society. the ‘model’ for which is provided by Greek tragedy. the principal elements. But what about the internal structure of the work? What exactly is the relationship between the constituent ingredients between.) There must be no ‘ritornellos’. the orchestra recedes into the background (WMD. first of all. the other the sea. 215). here. p. no ‘self-glorifying’ musical interludes. *** The younger Wagner emphasizes. The Artwork of the Future In Wagner’s view. a revision that exemplifies the familiar parabola leading from the idealism of youth to the resignation of old age but which was crucially shaped by his discovery of Schopenhauer. we have seen. They are to collaborate in the following way. 228 . What must be overcome is the ‘chaos’ of disconnected bits that is Italian opera. the need to restore ‘organic unity’ to the artwork.INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES of this appeal to a God-given German ‘mission’ is revealed by the fact that precisely the same appeal to a unique national mission was used by rightwing intellectuals to justify Germany’s entry into the First World War. that is to say. of film music. But what exactly will this redeeming artwork be like. 228). in particular. They should be like two travellers. the orchestra comes to the fore. p. one of whom (the poet) describes the land. is the theoretical template which Wagner the artist – this most theory-driven of all great composers – tries to realize? It will be. The heart of his remedy lies in the restoration of the collective artwork. p. 235)? What. in other words. section 7) is thus a particularly deadly insult. (Nietzsche’s 1888 description of Wagner as a gifted ‘miniaturist’ who lacked the capacity to construct genuinely unified wholes (The Wagner Case. music and words? I shall present. which disrupt the dramatic continuity of the work (WMD. which ‘presages th[e] life of the future and longs to be contained therein’ (WMD. this ‘artwork of the future’. What is required between poet and musician is not competition but rather the ‘spirit of community’. But where speech ascends the heights of poetic passion. a work that collects in the double sense of gathering the individual arts into a single work and of gathering the community into a clarifying affirmation of itself. conveying a feeling of foreboding or remembrance that underlies the drama – one might think. for example. a ‘collective artwork’. no big arias. we know. pp. but who then visit each other’s territory and become one (WMD. Wagner’s early account and then his revised account. an artwork. 228–9). not to mention the younger Bush’s invasion of Iraq. When words lose elevation (when. first. they merely expedite the plot).

it is actually not so at all. ‘all at sea’. the way his ‘Echoes of a New Year’s Eve’. As Martin Heidegger puts it in the first volume of his monumental Nietzsche study. Ultimately. for example. ‘a solidly grounded and articulated position in the midst of beings’ is ‘the kind of thing only great poetry and thought can create’. alluding to the fact that the essay takes the form of a letter to Wagner’s patron.2 32) – and ‘On State and Religion’ of 1864–5. ‘land’ has to take precedence over ‘sea’ since one cannot take one’s bearings when one is. in terms of Wagner’s metaphor. Ludwig II. in fact. the ‘magnificent’ ‘Beethoven’ essay of 1870 – Beethoven was important to Wagner because he regarded himself as. after a lovely beginning. as we indeed say. from the composer’s pandering to the desire of lazy listeners for easy ‘melody’ – ‘nessun dorma’.14 If we are to renew our shared understanding of the good life. then the most crucial demand on the artwork is that it should articulate that ethos. Nietzsche writes to Carl von Gersdorff. The Impact of Schopenhauer The philosophical works that roused Nietzsche to ecstasy during the Tribschen period were. p.RICHARD WAGNER AND THE BIRTH OF THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY Though this early account of the relation between music and words sounds very egalitarian. 222–3 above). If its function is to gather the community in a clarifying affirmation of its fundamental ethos. And that is something only words can do. is a great and deep essay in which he explains to his ‘young friend’. ‘Beethoven’s only son’ (KGB II. when he attempted anything but very short works – vide. drifts off into shapeless meanderings). however. fatally eluded Nietzsche. the composer. 52). the unity possessed by ‘absolute’ (purely instrumental) music when it is good (a unity that. Never has a king been spoken to in a more worthy or philosophical 229 . The latter. but only by the poet’s aim’ (WMD. 229: Wagner’s italics). the little king of Bavaria. etc. For Wagner makes clear that the real threat to the unity of the artwork comes from musical caprice. then. It is. as a random tricking out of sound. pretty obvious why words must be the dominant element of the collective artwork. (see p. as earlier observed. The ground cannot be that only words can produce unity since there obviously exists musical as well as dramatic unity. Wagner is not very explicit as to just why music must be ultimately subordinate to words. whatever his jibes about Wagner being a miniaturist. ‘the music of the night’. is the natural relation between music and words. his inner stance towards state and religion. a relation reflecting the origin of music in passionate speech: ‘Song is just talk aroused to the highest passion: music is the speech of passion’ (WMD. And this. the dominant element in the work must be the words: passages in which the orchestra comes to prominence ‘are never to be determined by the caprice of the musician. p. in Cosima’s words.

1 19) These works were. Speaking with particular reference to Tristan und Isolde. /in the world-breath /in the waves of the All /to drown /to sink down – /unconscious – /supreme bliss – are Isolde’s final words as she sinks ‘as if transfigured’ onto Tristan’s lifeless body and so brings both her life and the opera to a close. which Wagner discovered in 1854 and immediately reread four times. these U-turns are intimately connected with each other. he decided. the first of his operas to be entirely created after his discovery of The World as Will. however. Its chief idea. he explains. who has asked if he still held the revolutionary doctrines of his youth. ‘State and Religion’ ‘at every point seems to spring from the genius of Schopenhauer’ (ibid). his views on the proper nature and significance of music. To me of course that thought was not new. and that 230 . on the one hand. Writing in ‘State and Religion’ to Ludwig. … (KGB II. ‘as it were. of course. for absolute unconsciousness. total non-existence … [f]reedom from all dreams is our only final salvation. not at overcoming. and it can indeed be conceived by no one in whom it did not pre-exist.INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES manner. but this philosopher was the first to place it clearly before me … longing for death. that “my kingdom is not of this world”’. or at least powerfully reinforced. As Wagner says in this letter. and on the other. Wagner says that having discovered socialism to aim. As Nietzsche observes to von Gersdorff. the star-crossed lovers sing at length of their longing for ‘oblivion’: In the surging swell. written under the influence of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation. Wagner’s views on society. the final negation of the desire for life. a sea-change in. but it shows the only salvation possible. What did Schopenhauer mean to Wagner? What effect did his The World as Will produce on the composer? It produced.15 I was completely elevated and at the same time shaken by its ideality (Idealität). Wagner writes to Franz Liszt in December 1854 that Schopenhauer’s philosophy came to him ‘like a gift from heaven’. is terribly serious.16 And in Tristan itself. As we shall see. but simply reorganizing the dehumanized workplace of industrial modernity. politics and redemption. /in the ringing sound. the thought that the solution to the problem of life lies in its ‘negation’ ‘pre-existed’ in his mind before he found it articulated by the great pessimist.

p. (WMD. attained by faith. is a ‘tragic’ figure. More generally. What this means for the king is that he must become a kind of religious role model. 413) Redemption from. pp.and worldtranscendence in which we experience the ‘inner happiness’ of the saint. continues Wagner. Religion. Wahn: moving from Tribschen to Bayreuth Wagner called his new house Wahnfried – literally ‘delusion-peace’ – explaining. is but a ‘dream’ (WMD. prepared for by renunciation. and is thus futile. that is. (WMD. the affirmation of Schopenhauerian pessimism: life is suffering. recognition of the world as a fleeting and dreamlike state of mind reposing merely on illusion – and struggle for redemption from it. an affirmation of the 231 . take it ne’er so terrible and earnest an appearance. Second. here. 402). This is what makes the third element in Wagner’s later philosophy possible. p. Wagner concludes. sure in the knowledge of his other-worldly redemption. the everyday world. the ‘Wahn of individuality’ and the ‘hell of [an] existence filled with terrible discord’. so that in this way it comforts us and wafts us from the common truth of our distress. in recognizing that true reality is an indissolubly unity. an undifferentiated ‘Oneness’ which abolishes the very possibility of discord (WPW V. points us to a self.RICHARD WAGNER AND THE BIRTH OF THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY in fact ‘world-improvers’ of whatever kind ‘were victims of a fundamental error. Wagner no longer affirms socialist materialism but rather Schopenhauerian idealism: nature. Recognizing the irredeemable ‘unblessedness of human being’. that it is ‘here where my delusions have found peace’. pp. yet is here again shown us as a mere Wahn picture. politics is delusion. a saint-like figure embodying the nature of ‘true religion’. and demanded from the world itself a thing it cannot give’ (WMD. 420–1) Three things are going on here. above the front door. And so life is but a ‘game’. the ‘innermost kernel’ of religion is. This gives us the task of great – that is to say. that redemption consists in transcending the illusion of plurality. human endeavour can change its form but never its quantity. First. Its task. p. the ‘Beethoven’ essay adds. is to lift us up above life and show it as itself a game of play: a game that. So the optimism that is presupposed by schemes of world-improvement such as the socialism of Wagner’s youth are based on delusion. with Schopenhauer. of Tristan). 413). or of the martyr – the king. denial of the world – that is. religious – art. Wagner writes prophetically to Ludwig. 71–2). Wagner continues (above all one thinks.

It speaks the ‘highest wisdom’ in a language which the reason of this most unreflective of geniuses does not understand.17 Failing to recognize Schopenhauer’s great discovery of the uniqueness of music. Being a layman. salvation through transcendence to ‘another world’ (WMD. music in a nonconceptual manner discloses to us the nature of ultimate reality. This is the character of Beethoven’s great music. Wagner continues. indicating thereby his acceptance of this high metaphysical claim for music. of our ‘pleasure in beautiful forms’ (WPW V. pp. the musical formalist. on 232 . Wagner writes. But how can we access this faith? How can we acquire the phenomenological experience of the reality of this world beyond plurality and so beyond pain? The key is music. Wagner holds. but attention to Beethoven’s musical development from his beginning as a showy and relatively superficial piano virtuoso to the profound unworldliness for which he is remembered shows that Schopenhauer was right. some people (foremost in his mind. started. however.) His wisdom brings us the ‘highest comfort’.INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES possibility of ‘salvation’ from this world of pain. following the tradition of Haydn and Mozart. judging it in terms of the beautiful. the ‘thing in itself’. When great music ‘engrosses us. he showed us that the proper category for assessing the greatness of great music is not the beautiful but rather the sublime. pp. therefore. But it is healing rather than diseased Wahn (WPW V. 77). will ‘redeem us from the curse of appearances’. The highest music is. *** Schopenhauer held that while. Who. In his maturity. is his antagonist. a matter of faith rather than reason. that is redemptive. p. Schopenhauer could not properly demonstrate his claim. This was the position from which Beethoven. In the ‘Beethoven’ essay. all the other arts deal with the visible world of appearance. ‘religious’ in character. Eduard Hanslick) have applied the criteria of the plastic arts quite inappropriately to music. as it were. state it is religion purged of ‘dogmatic fictions’ (WPW V. Of course we cannot provide a rational proof that there is a redemptive other world. (Tiresias was struck blind by Hera. she transports us to the highest ecstasy (ekstase) of consciousness of our infinitude’. along with language and conceptual thought. Wagner asks rhetorically. music understood in the light of Schopenhauer’s revelation of its true nature. Religious other-worldliness is in that sense Wahn. the ‘blind seer’. here. 80–1). In communicating a ‘holy’. Wagner says that it was Schopenhauer who first properly defined the position of music in relation to the other arts. too. p. 78–81). As the deafness of which he never complained overtook him he became. 413) – salvation. acquiring thereby the gift of second sight. from discord and pain.

the melody to which they are set precedes them as purely instrumental music. through constant repetition.’ Schiller’s words in the ninth symphony are. In particular it is superior to poetry. in the postSchopenhauerian part of the cycle the orchestra becomes the dominant force. when we return to the everyday world of ‘semblances’. Whereas in the earlier part of the Ring – specifically. In the second and third acts of Die Walkyrie and in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung there are long passages in which the words become nothing but pure Schopenhauerian solfeggio. so that the after-effect. And in the Missa Solemnis the voices (aided of course by the fact that they sing in Latin) function as pure musical sounds. of course. is Schopenhauer’s analysis of emotion into a distinct phenomenological feeling plus an intentional object. His renowned cheerfulness is the world-creating Brahma laughing at himself. 91–4). together with the idea that music allows one to experience the universal ‘inner nature’ of 233 .20 Wagner’s reversal of his earlier theory of the relative significance of music and words is mirrored in his post-Schopenhauerian compositions.RICHARD WAGNER AND THE BIRTH OF THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY listening to the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. 104). Schopenhauer’s claim that music is superior to all the other arts. p. Not only is music more important than words. Wagner now writes. I believe. pp. is the feeling of having ‘forfeited paradise’ (WPW V. What lies behind this idea. the words have become a mere ‘solfeggio’. BT 21). the mass is superior to opera since. meaning-free sounds. ‘Poetry’. It may be this approximation of the later works to ‘absolute’21 music that leads Nietzsche to suggest in his notebooks that the term ‘music-drama’ is actually a bad one (KSA 7 3[70]). in Das Reingold and the first act of Die Walkyrie – the music is strictly subordinate to the drama. it actually – again Wagner directly reverses his earlier position – gives rise to them: the music of a great artwork ‘contains the drama in itself’ (WPW V. as words. ( Wagner here echoes Schopenhauer’s remark that since the superficiality of words can but be a distraction from the deep metaphysical significance of music. In Tristan the drama is so slow and the music so long that the work is sometimes referred to as the opera without action. The discovery of The World as Will took place in the middle of writing the Ring cycle (the text for the whole work had been completed much earlier) and had a profound impact on the character of the work. ‘must always be subordinate to music. At most they help intensify the mood that belongs to the music. This elevation of music to the status of religion confirms. unimportant – it is significant that in the final movement. a vast ‘symphony’ (KSA 7 8 [21]. has failed to hear the redeemer’s words ‘today thou shalt be with me in paradise’?18 Beethoven gives us an ‘immediate experience [of redemption] of transparent comprehensibility’. Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’19 and seventh symphonies deliver us from all earthly guilt. Nietzsche indeed suggests that it is capable of being experienced as a purely instrumental work.

Unfortunately for the clarity of his position. this is precisely what great music does.23 *** In summary. And second. He never clearly states that he has given up on the ideal of the artwork as an agent of social redemption. Heidegger writes that what Wagner wanted was that ‘the artwork should be a celebration of national community … should be the religion’ of the people. instead of music being the servant of words and drama it now assumes priority over the words. into sheer feeling’ pre-eminent. First. p. is in fact created out of. the point is to improve the world. indeed. evidently. Even as acute a reader as Martin Heidegger missed this point. In other words. 263. the artwork has to be about the world. Wagner never clearly announces the abandonment of his early philosophy of life and art for a new and diametrically opposed one. These changes are of course connected. for example. the ‘Pastoral’ symphony and the ‘Moonlight’ sonata – neither title was supplied by Beethoven. entirely functionless in the artwork. according to his later thought. if. This makes it possible to supply a piece of absolute music with an official or unofficial text.22 So. as was the art of the Italian Renaissance (WPW V. in short. words. total dissolution. as in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. WR II. 234 . But. at least ‘the spirit of music’: Greek culture was so created. Since. (The text may. p. claims Wagner. music thus becomes the crucial element in the artwork. Wagner’s ‘attempt had to fail’ since he made music. which threaten to become. Wagner’s post-Schopenhauerian thought contains two fundamental reversals of his earlier thought. and. For if. he continues. with the result that ‘salvation’ is to happen no longer in a future state of this world but in another world. 121). one has abandoned world-amelioration as futile. never clearly states that. then. for example. p. sad instrumental music gives one the experience of sadness without giving one anything to be sad about. then. be visual. is no longer redemption of the world but rather redemption from the world. ethos-expounding myth. Hence. becomes the crucial element in the artwork. whereas in fact (to repeat the quotation) ‘only great poetry and thought’. in particular. of course. then what one wants from a ‘redemptive’ artwork is something which allows one to transcend the world. which only words can articulate.) All great art. on Schopenhauer’s account. 449). as in the later theory. as one might put it. a kind of music that launches us into ‘sheer indeterminacy.INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES emotion divorced from the intentional object. On the other hand. as in the early theory. which stands to universal feeling in the relation of an ‘example’ (WR I. ‘redemption’ has become a purely individual notion. the optimism of socialism is replaced by pessimism about the human condition. ‘Salvation’. to revive community through the community-‘collecting’ artwork. if not literal music.

to repeat. *** Nietzsche. 353–69). Wagner had. pp. written sixteen years after his Schopenhauerian ‘turn’. 404).and postSchopenhauerian conceptions of the artwork. p. on Nietzsche’s own showing. since he is above the clash of powerful vested interests which is the character of day-to-day politics (WMD. said that the main point of The Birth of Tragedy was to resolve the ‘enigma’ or ‘puzzle’ of Wagner’s relation to the Greek tragedy. of the king as the best protection of the deprived classes. I think. Surprisingly. now as plain as a pikestaff what it is that constitutes the puzzle: it is the contradiction between the pre. the main point is this: contrary to those who would minimize the significance of Wagner for The Birth. Wagner continues to celebrate the creation of ‘national community’ through art in the Mastersingers. and indeed the whole Bayreuth project that was the obsession of the last decades of his life was an attempt to create. music to dominate his works. Or perhaps. and of universal ‘human interests’ as such. mixed in with the idea of the king as a role model of the religious turn to other-worldliness is the idea. 121. p. What we should expect. preserved unmodified from the socialism of the 1840s. he presses him to read not merely the ‘Beethoven’ and ‘State and Religion’ essays but also the central text of the early theory. and in ‘On State and Religion’. one should speak not diachronically about ‘early’ and ‘late’ but rather synchronically about a split personality. my italics). though. a ‘German national theatre’ (WMD. however. Moreover. or in his own language ‘sea-of-feeling’. is that The Birth will attempt the daunting 235 . another wholly post-Schopenhauerian work. But Heidegger can be excused since Wagner himself never properly resolved the inconsistency between his earlier and later positions. he still speaks of the ‘redemption of modern civilization’25 as a task for the ‘German spirit’ (WPW V. Nietzsche never seems to have contemplated this strategy: since writing to von Gersdorff early in the Tribschen period.26 However one describes it. The most obvious way of resolving the contradiction would be to abandon either the early or the late theory. in reality. therefore. Opera and Drama (1850) – and offers no warning that the former works might be difficult to reconcile with the latter (KGB II. about a ‘socialist Wagner’ and a ‘Schopenhauerian Wagner’. the main task of The Birth is in fact to resolve the inconsistency at the heart of the Wagnerian world-view. In the ‘Beethoven’ essay. the puzzle of what it was Wagner expected the great artwork to achieve. In other words. It is. given Wagner’s retention of many of his earlier ideas in his later thoughts.1 19).RICHARD WAGNER AND THE BIRTH OF THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY can ‘create a solidly grounded and articulated position in the midst of beings’. given up on national community.24 This misses the point. since by the time he came to allow ‘dissolving’. as he explains on the occasion of the laying of the foundation stone in 1873.

the world of. While dedicated to Wagner. ultimately just a ‘dream’. ‘is the primal cause of all suffering’ (BT 10). The Birth of Tragedy The Birth of Tragedy was written. the work is written. for us. Nietzsche calls this the ‘absurdity’ (BT 7) of human existence: whatever bubble of a life we blow up. ultimately. And secondly. as individuals sharing the world with a plurality of other individuals we are condemned – for something like Darwin’s reasons – to disharmony and conflict. Nonetheless. But it was also written under the equally powerful influence of.INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES task of showing how one can endorse both the early theory and the late. Life. than Schopenhauer’s. First. Albert Camus famously said that the only serious problem of philosophy is the question of suicide. Whereas for the latter the pain of life often seems a matter of quantity – the amount of suffering we experience always outweighs the amount of happiness – for Nietzsche it is a matter of the necessary structure of life as a human individual. The Birth subscribes to Schopenhauer’s idealism: the everyday world. p. of whether or not life is worth living. as Nietzsche calls him. This latter allegiance entails two crucial commitments. as he puts it at one point. Let us now see how this strategy is carried out. the principium individuationis.1 4). it subscribes to Schopenhauer’s pessimism. We have no option but to live. Nietzsche would say. suicide is not an option. more philosophical. ‘Individuality’. NietzscheanWagnerian-Schopenhauerian pessimism holds that it is not. Camus’s equation is a misleading one since. The relevant question is not whether or not life is worth living but rather. in Schopenhauer’s phrase. Nietzsche’s endeavour is to show how Wagner can have his cake and eat it. This connexion makes his pessimism deeper. The non-rational but inescapable (biologically programmed) will to live – the abhorrence of death as the summum malum – means that (with only the very occasional exception) we will choose existence ‘at any price’ over non-existence (KSA I. Nietzsche connects individuality with pessimism in a way that is at best implicit in Schopenhauer. in company with the later Wagner. he writes. how to 236 . As individuals we are first of all condemned to death – in contradiction of the human essence. ‘in [Schopenhauer’s] spirit and to his honour’ (BT 5). under the powerful influence of Richard Wagner. it will be inevitably be punctured by time and death. This is what Nietzsche calls the ‘nauseous’ character of existence (ibid. is mere ‘appearance’. I have been claiming. the world of individuality and plurality. 231 above). it seems to me. 756). given that we must live. is not worth living since its dominant character is suffering. Wagner’s ‘brother in spirit’ (KGB II. And second. Arthur Schopenhauer. Influenced by Wagner. I think (see p.). again with the later Wagner. This transforms the problem. which is – as Schopenhauer indeed says – the ‘will to live’.

RICHARD WAGNER AND THE BIRTH OF THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY make it bearable. This is where Greece. As the god of the boundary-drawing and division which creates both plurality and justice. collectively and separately. in modernity by the Enlightenment. for man and woman. and in particular. How did they manage this? How did they manage to conquer the ‘nauseous’ character of life? Through. and brought it to a greatness that has never since been matched. 9). condemned unknowingly to murder his father and sleep with his mother. of Prometheus condemned on account of his love of man to have an eagle feed on his liver for all eternity. the Greeks survived and thrived: though massively outnumbered. of reason. Captured by King Midas and forced to divulge his wisdom. p. we can hope to overcome our own ‘nausea’. The next best. and in particular Greek art. as it were. was the tragic artwork of fourth-century Greece – this ‘festive reunification of the [individual] Greek arts’ (KSA I.27 In spite of such knowledge. of the linguistic. the Apollonian is the domain of the conceptual. through the high point of Greek art. Apollo symbolizes the world of the principium individuationis (BT 1. were really Schopenhauerians. Their ‘exquisite’ sensitivity to the ‘terrors and horrors’ of life is captured in their myths: in the fate of Oedipus. their art: above all and most successfully. in the first instance. through a ‘rebirth’ of the Greek artwork. becomes relevant. the companion of Dionysus declares ‘with a scornful cackle’: whoever is man can never achieve the most to-be-desired. In art. Nietzsche suggests. in the ancient world by Socrates. the tragic festival. by ‘Socratism’. the most preferable would be never to have been born. as Nietzsche calls it. they defeated Darius’ Persians28 and. the visible 237 . created Western civilization. can have no part of the best. As a philosophy of life. is to use it as a ‘polished mirror’ in which to view ourselves (Assorted Opinions and Maxims. For mankind. 2. the Apollonian is represented. how to make the best of a bad job.29 This is where they become relevant to us: to the horror of his fellow Greek philologists. however. en passant. Nietzsche asserts that the only point of studying history. ancient history. The Greeks. We want to learn about Greek tragedy because. *** What. the wisest man on earth. In terms of the capacities of the human mind. then. but most directly in the ‘wisdom of Silenus’. 518) – like? Nietzsche analyses it in terms of a celebrated duality which was probably inspired by his schoolboy study of Hölderlin:30 that between the ‘Apollonian’ and the ‘Dionysian’ elements. section 218). however – having been born – would be to die soon. Nietzsche asserts. the Apollonian is.

then. dreams represent an ideal of classical beauty for the visual arts. Nietzsche associates the word ‘dream’ with the Apollonian partly because. Nietzsche says that the mythic figures of Greek tragedy are ‘contracted’ images which ‘abbreviate appearances’. The word Nietzsche associates with Dionysus is Rausch: intoxication. In doing so it gathers the community. since ‘in dreams all forms speak to us. that world raised to a state of beauty by simplification. then. the heart of the Apollonian element is the poetic text. Thus far. nothing is superfluous or unnecessary’ (BT 1). or better. myth and morality’. Now. thereby creating and preserving it as community. ‘eternal’ view on its experience. which endows them with universal significance (BT 23). ‘the Greeks viewed the ancient tragedies in order to collect (sich sammeln) themselves’ (KSA 7 3[1]). clarification and glorification. And that they are human types rather than individuals (the actors. the ethos of a community. The images of myth. Specifically it is the mythic content of the work. are ‘necessarily … entwined. so he thinks. Wagner’s earlier account of the role of the collective artwork almost word for word.INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES world. Closely echoing Wagner (see p. and partly because. ‘standing out of oneself’. a dream is what the world of individuals is. of course. the words. Neither a people nor an individual human being can thrive without there being ‘gods of the hearth’ to constitute its ‘mythical home’ (BT 23). Only myth provides it with ‘a secure and sacred place of origin’. however. 224–5 above). ‘ecstasy’.’ A people is only properly a people if it can impose a mythic. the mythic content of tragedy articulates. even the state knows of no more powerful unwritten laws than the mythical fundament which guarantees its connection with religion and its emergence from out of mythic representations. and in the second. In a word. Nietzsche concludes. In the collective artwork that is Greek tragedy. he continues. ‘Art and nation (Volk). the religious content – Sophocles. Whereas the mystery plays of medieval Germany had the function of allowing the individual to separate himself from the community in private meditation. out of everyday consciousness 238 . Nietzsche says that ‘only a mythic horizon unifies a culture’. must be the unnoticed but ever-present daemonic guardians under whose tutelage young souls grow up and by whose signs the grown man interprets his life and his struggles. all wore masks). Nietzsche emphasizes. then. from the point of view of his Schopenhauerian metaphysics. What is the importance of religious myth? Again repeating Wagner almost verbatim. was a ‘religious’ writer (BT 9). Nietzsche turns to the Dionysian aspect of tragedy. in allegorical form.

In Dionysian ecstasy. intuitively. In this condition we experience.RICHARD WAGNER AND THE BIRTH OF THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY (KSA I. the illusion of individuality. says Nietzsche. to some degree. As members of the Greek audience we partially empathize with the hero in his inexorable march to destruction. dissolves everything into a ‘sea of feeling’. In Wagner’s choice of terminology. of the seeming paradox of our deriving satisfaction from witnessing the destruction of figures who. 521). to realize.’ ‘The whole is just one sublime chorus’ (BT 8). in the modern football stadium). more exactly ‘dithyrambic’ music. Singing and dancing. so that mere shreds of it flutter before the mysterious primordial unity. all the rigid. 239 . the Dionysian is that which transcends concepts. so that there was fundamentally no opposition between public and chorus. And in aesthetic terms it is music. lay in the Dionysian festival. The origin of Greek tragedy. man expresses his sense of belonging to a higher community. has forgotten how to walk and talk… (BT 1) In terms of the capacities of the human mind. actors and action were added to the chanting – the music ‘gave birth’ to the drama – and a formal division came into being between chorus and audience. In Schopenhauerian terms the Dionysian state is one in which one overcomes the principium individuationis. that which cannot properly be articulated in language. as if [in Schopenhauer’s language] the veil of Maya had been torn apart. But because our primary identification is with the chorus we find ourselves transported by its hypnotic singing into the Dionysian state. This happens because the world of individuals becomes ‘unreal’ for us (BT 8). the ‘dithyrambic’ chanting of hymns in honour of Dionysus. each person feels himself to be not simply united. it is music that is ‘sublime’ rather than ‘beautiful’ (see p. one’s identity with the one true being which everything is. Nietzsche argues. music which. preserved in the medieval carnival (and still. Later. Yet remembering that everyone was originally part of a unitary congregation of worshippers. caprice or ‘impudent fashion’ have established between man and man break asunder. 232 above). a ‘metaphysical comfort’ for the nauseous character of human existence. in most ways. like Wagner’s. This identification enables Nietzsche to give an account of the ‘tragic effect’. hostile barriers which [Apollonian] necessity. Now hearing this gospel of universal harmony. but quite literally one with him. p. represent what is finest and wisest in us. reconciled or merged with his neighbour. the spectators in the great period of Greek tragedy still felt themselves to be part of the chorus: ‘The audience of Attic tragedy identified itself with the chorus on the orchestra [the semi-circular area in front of the stage].

State and homeland. recall. that the ‘ugly and disharmonious’ which form such a pervasive feature of the world of humanity are merely parts of an ‘artistic game’ which the primal unity plays with itself (BT 24). From this it follows that ‘only as aesthetic phenomena do existence and the world appear justified’. are not my problem since they are just parts of the epic movie in which I am no longer a participant. Rather – given my identity with the ‘world-building force’ that ‘the dark Heraclitus’ compared to a child building sandcastles and then knocking them over again (BT 24) – I am its ‘sole author and spectator’ (BT 6). Instead of identifying with anything in the world of appearances. the ‘ecstatic brooding’ of Dionysianism ‘leads a people … along the road towards Indian Buddhism’. ‘the primal cause of all suffering’ – nauseating: 240 . no encompassing of the new without destruction of the old. the destruction of appearances. including our own normal selves. Pain and death. then. unless it is modified and controlled in some way. I realize. that is to say. even hostility.INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES individuals. is the ‘solace’ brought by the great artwork. become like soldiers in a painting of a battle scene (BT 5). then I shall find the idea of return to the world of individuation – individuation being. The nauseous and absurd in life and the world. This is why. are essentially Apollonian entities: the state requires structure and hierarchy. *** Nietzsche observes that the Dionysian state is accompanied by a ‘dwindling of the political instinct’ through indifference. all this now seems to us to be necessary given the uncountable excess of forms of existence thrusting and pushing themselves into life. This. the agony. everyday realism and realizes the truth of Schopenhauerian idealism. are not just parts but rather necessary parts of the world-movie since (as Margaret Atwood once ruefully observed) there is no narrative without conflict. given the exuberant fertility of the world-will (BT 17) that we are. towards ‘the state and the sense of homeland’ (BT 21). engenders ‘apathy’ towards ‘worldly’ affairs and a Buddhistic ‘longing for nothingness’ (BT 21). we become the primordial being itself and we feel its unbounded greed and lust for being: the struggle. ‘for a brief moment’. and homeland requires a boundary between where I belong and where ‘the other’ belongs. For a brief moment one overcomes prosaic. So that if I have ascended to the ‘higher community’ that comes from the abolition of all difference and division. I see.

The Dionysian is set against the meanness and commonness [of the everyday] as a higher order. *** The main goal of The Birth of Tragedy is. And it is the potential effect of Wagner’s later music dramas: no one. p. of Dionysus’ intimate companion. says Nietzsche. the final gift of the great artwork. to act (BT 21). This is the true meaning of Hamlet’s paralysis: his insight is that ‘knowledge kills action. without ‘suffocating as their soul attempted convulsively to spread its wings’ (BT 21). They both contain words and action. fails to grasp the deep meaning of his own work. 230 above). Lethe draws a veil of forgetfulness over our moment of world-negating. writes Nietzsche. The result is that we return to everyday life ‘strangely comforted’ yet ‘relieved of the burden’ of understanding why we are comforted. Relieved of the burden of Dionysian insight we are able. once more. could listen to the final act of Wagner’s dithyrambic Tristan as absolute music. (KSA I. will-denying mood is the product of this condition. In Nietzsche’s language. Silenus. i. collective.31 … In the consciousness that comes with the awaking from intoxication. of the later Wagner. of the great. and neither was Greek tragedy. The Greek now wants absolute escape from this world of guilt and fate. Now he understands the wisdom of the forest god.RICHARD WAGNER AND THE BIRTH OF THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY As soon as everyday reality re-enters consciousness it is found to be nauseous: an ascetic. And this is. ‘purely as a vast symphonic movement’. artwork. Of course. the Wagner who affirms that ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ and longs for ‘death. it is to solve the 241 . too. We are subjected to the ‘noble deception’ that the tragedy is a purely Apollonian affair. this is the ‘wisdom’. BT 7) the wisdom. (The reference. for absolute unconsciousness. to the soul’s regrowing its wings in preparation for its return from earthly exile to its true homeland on ‘the rim of the heavens’. Like a fairy godmother. This. the Apollonian element. that it concerns nothing but the fate of an individual in a world of individuals. total non-existence’ (p. redemptive insight.e. that is. to repeat. in the end.) But of course Tristan is not (quite) pure music. shields us from the full force of the Dionysian effect. Even the playwright succumbs to the ‘deception’. of course. to solve the ‘enigma’ of the relation between Wagner’s early and late conceptions of Greek tragedy. it nauseates him. he sees everywhere the horror or absurdity of human existence. whether it be Greek tragedy or the Wagnerian musicdrama. 595. ‘restores the almost shattered individual with the healing balm of illusion’. is to Plato’s Phaedrus. action requires … the veil of “Apollonian” illusion’ (BT 7). cf.

then it cannot work.’) That being said. 1975– ). I think. We must choose between being. on the other hand. like Hamlet. on the other hand. metaphysical emigrants. then. G. Conversely. Does Nietzsche really show that the collective artwork can both redeem the community by gathering it in self. And that entails that. an uncomfortable residue. incapable of authentic action. or ordinary unreflective denizens of the Bayreuth opera house. if we can act with passion and commitment then we must be metaphysical realists and so deprive ourselves of the ‘metaphysical comfort’ of Dionysianism. we know that the presupposition of life-affirming action is in fact mere ‘illusion’. or close readers of The Birth of Tragedy. therefore. depends on who one is. that is. like him. but initiates it leaves out in the cold. But if. with the later Wagner. we are Nietzsche. New Zealand Notes 1 The following abbreviations of Nietzsche’s works are employed in this paper: KGB Nietzsche Briefwechsel. Insofar. we are paralysed. Montinari (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. For what we now know is that it is all done with smoke and mirrors.and lifeaffirmation and comfort the individual by revealing to him a blissful domain beyond this worthless world of nausea and absurdity? The answer. It leaves them with the knowledge that life is not worth living yet locked into an unavoidable compulsion to buy into life. Nietzsche’s intellectually stunning solution to the problem is to show how the artwork can be both Apollonian and Dionysian: how it can both comfort the individual in the face of the nauseous character of human existence and promote the flourishing of community by gathering it in a celebration and affirmation of its fundamental understanding of how human existence is and ought to be. The solution works for the uninitiated. (One can imagine an enlightened Wagner replying to requests for a statement of what he really thought about Greek tragedy with: ‘I don’t know: ask Nietzsche what I think. Colli and M. 242 . players on the world-stage and.INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES puzzle between a fundamentally Apollonian conception of the artwork and a fundamentally Dionysian conception. a sorting out of Wagner’s contradictory position for which the fecund but muddled composer ought to have been profoundly grateful. with the early Wagner. then maybe it can work. Nietzsche’s solution to the ‘enigma’ of Richard Wagner leaves. This is an intellectual tour de force. as we experience the ‘metaphysical comfort’ brought to us by Dionysus. ‘whatever the price’. Kritische Gesamtausgabe. becoming. For us it is an ‘either–or’ situation. ed. the question still needs to be raised as to whether Nietzsche’s resolution of the contradiction really works. If we are ordinary unreflective Greeks. University of Auckland.

ed. op. Presumably Kaufmann couples The Birth with The Case of Wagner. see. 525. 59. 3 Nietzsche: Philosopher. 9 The Life of Richard Wagner (New York: Knopf. trans. 30. in effect. pp. 58. p. Hans Joachim Mette (Munich: Beck. 12 Even. 7 It is. 1950). and as the book clearly [this is the bullying use of ‘clearly’] ought to. Kritische Studienausgabe. 1934–40). though sometimes agreeing with Wagner (KSA 7 1 [1]. Psychologist. is what Kaufmann suggests in his introduction to his own translation of The Birth. 51–9). W. 7 [79]. Another ten sections follow that weaken the whole book immeasurably’ (The Birth of Tragedy and the Case of Wagner. translated and introduced by W. IV. Ashton Ellis (London: Kegan Paul. Hereafter WMD. Vol. the Volk (people) is the creator of the great artwork.1 19. Goldman and E. 57–8. that slavery of some kind is the prerequisite of the leisure that produces ‘culture’ (KSA 7 7 [16]. revised edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. elimination presents itself as an alternative to assimilation is what makes such paranoid thinking so dangerous. In the infamous ‘On the Jews in Music’ Wagner at least has the grace to place the blame for the status of the Jews as malign outsiders on Christianity’s refusal to assimilate them. in order to show what Nietzsche ‘really’ thought of Wagner. pp. the young Nietzsche affirms the ‘hard’ truth. 6 To Carl von Gersdorff. p. 120. trans. new edn. when he says that ‘unfortunately The Birth of Tragedy does not end with section 15.) 8 Hollingdale. Aston Ellis (London: Gollancz. 1966). reveals to me the epitome of what Schopenhauer calls “the genius” and who is permeated by that wonderfully intense philosophy. Kaufmann (New York: Vintage. the antiWagner polemic of 1888.. this. once Jews are cast in the role of a fifth column in the midst of the Volk. in a sense. 1946). 2 The Young Nietzsche (London: Heinemann.RICHARD WAGNER AND THE BIRTH OF THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY HKG Friedrich Nietzsche. 13. (In both cases of disagreement. 11 Richard Wagner’s Prose Works. Speirs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Werke und Briefe: Historische-Kritische-Gesamtausgabe. Montinari (Berlin: DTV/de Gruyter. the following letter). Logically speaking the solution to ‘the Jewish question’ is thus assimilation (WMD. 5 Since the interest in and influence of Wagner is hardest to deny in sections 16– 25. Whereas Wagner condemns Greek slavery. cit.. A. And whereas. Wagner holds that. This is none other than Richard Wagner’ (KGB II. as he sees it. Trench. 4 Nietzsche: The Man and his Philosophy. Vol. G. 7 [138]). 1912). 241. p. BT Friedrich Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy and other Writings. p. as we shall see. p. I believe. 243 . in fact. W. Nietzsche. 1896). 1999). But the fact that. Sprinchorn. 7 [18]). Trübner and Co. too. Antichrist (New York: Vintage. ed. Hereafter WPW. one might ask. ed. clear from his notebooks that Nietzsche was not totally uncritical of the Wagnerian world-view. KSA Friedrich Nietzsche. V. like no other. Wagner is right and Nietzsche wrong. 1999). 1970). Colli and M. 1999). 10 Wagner on Music and Drama. the Jews? Theoretically at least one must. p. shortly after his first visit by invitation to Tribschen: ‘I have found a man who. p. is at other times inclined to think that the creator of art can only be an individual (KSA 7 5 [98]). as an early draft did. R. but to pursue this issue would take us too far afield. trans.

in line with Wagner’s earlier theory. as Wagner uses it. 26 Wagner himself speaks of such a split. 432–36. Krell (New York: Harper-Collins. an oxymoron. trans. E. F. J. In itself. 355. 19 Wagner actually says ‘symphony in F’. p. 18 Certainly Walt Disney. whose classic Fantasia allows a day in the life of Arcadia to grow out of the ‘Pastoral’. trans. To live is to act. One can to some degree trace the process of Nietzsche’s thinking his way into Wagner’s later theoretical stance via his use of ‘absolute’ in the notebooks of the period. But by the end of the year – a year in which Nietzsche celebrated Christmas at Tribschen – it has lost its critical connotation (KSA 7 3 [2]) and by the end of 1870 it has become a term of high approval (KSA 7 5 [110]). however. Vol. is provided by Plato’s attempts to persuade the Tyrant of Syracuse to govern according to the principles of the Republic. pp. In a letter to his friend August Röckel written in August 1856 he observes that the theme of ‘renunciation. 24 Heidegger. 21 Wagner coined the term ‘absolute’ to refer to purely instrumental music.. for which Illusion is often deployed as a synonym. 20 Parerga and Paralipomena (Oxford: Clarendon Press. 22 The World as Will and Representation. 261. The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (Oxford: Clarendon Press. 14 Nietzsche. 1974). p. 17 In Wagner at Bayreuth (1876) Nietzsche deals with the conflict between the reservations he is now beginning to have about Wagner and the overriding desire to praise the composer and promote the cause of Bayreuth by narrating Wagner’s career as a kind of Bildungsroman in which his ‘higher self’ gradually triumphs over his ‘lower self’. Since the relationship was of hero-worshipper to hero it seems to me most likely that Nietzsche took the phrase from Wagner. 88. for instance. p. Nietzsche’s notebooks of the Tribschen period are full of this kind of use of Wahn. to repeat. it seems to me. I. 25 Might not a society composed of world. ‘absolute’.INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES 13 Wahn is a word Wagner uses with great frequency. hears these words. Since both the ‘Beethoven’ essay and The Birth were written during a period when Wagner and Nietzsche saw each other on an almost weekly basis. seems to me far more likely. is a neutral term meaning something like ‘set of beliefs that exceed any possible evidence we could have for their truth’. 1991). such a society would soon get wiped out by will-fully aggressive neighbours. Wahn. Hereafter WR. The idea of a will-denying civilization is. 15 The competition. In the autumn of 1869. The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. For in the absence of will. 16 Quoted in B. It seems to me highly probable that it was the ‘Beethoven’ essay which gave him the model for the structure of this essay. Magee. 86–8. which could mean either the sixth or the eighth. of course. op. functions as a term of clear disapproval (KSA 7 1 [54]). with which Nietzsche was familiar prior to the Tribschen period. in short. the negation of the will’ appears already in pre-Schopenhauerian works such as Tannhäuser 244 . 1969). it seems certain that one of them took the phrase ‘spirit of music’ from the other. It is hard to translate: Ashton Ellis leaves it untranslated because he distinguishes both harmful and beneficial forms of Wahn – religion is the latter – rather as Plato. D. of action. 1983). distinguishes good and bad forms of ‘madness’ – the inspiration behind good poetry is the latter. cit. 2. Vol. ‘action is world-affirmation’ (KSA 7 5 [32]). pp. Vol. 23 Nietzsche’s book is called. The former. as applied to music. I. in the Phaedrus.and will-‘negating’ ascetics waiting patiently for death to absorb them into a better world count as a ‘redeemed civilization’? Hardly. Payne (New York: Dover. and as Nietzsche says.

has the priestly task of restoring it. Zarathustra has learnt ‘to smile uncloudedly down from bright eyes and from miles away when under us compulsion and purpose and guilt stream like rain’. While as an artist I felt [the need for worlddenial] … as a philosopher I sought to discover a totally opposite interpretation of the world’. G. finite human reason and the infinitude of ‘the holy’. Of course. He holds that Western modernity has been overtaken by clear but shallow reason so that it has lost its sense of the divine. as being tangential to present concerns. ‘Socratism’. of ‘holy pathos’. standing nearer to the gods than other mortals. or if known.. 588). inter alia. The fact that this reflection occurs in a passage of thought concerned with the ‘illusions’ on which culture is necessarily built suggests an interesting perspective on the figure of Zarathustra: that he is. And even the hyper-rationalism of Socrates. p. the religion of Zoroaster would have conquered Greece (KSA 7 5[54]). I.2 12[1]). Montinari (Berlin: de Gruyter. op. namely. 1967– ). he construes in a similar way. I exclude these discussions. Compare the ecstatic state described in Thus Spoke Zarathustra’s ‘Before Sunrise’: identifying himself with the ‘azure bell’ of the sky. and that the poet.) This is the formulation given in ‘The Birth of Tragic Thought’. poet entitled ‘A Letter to a Distant Friend in which I Recommend my Favourite Poet’ (Nietzsche Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. that is. the ‘free spirit’ who sees through the ‘illusions’ of Western culture. I was working in direct opposition to the intuitive ideas represented in these works. 245 . supportive of socialism (quoted in Magee. Hölderlin’s philosophical thinking is dominated by an antithesis between ‘clarity of presentation’ (the ‘Apollonian’) and the ‘the fire from heaven’ (the ‘Dionysian’). p. He explains this as a split between artist and early theoretician: ‘with my conscious reason. Nietzsche read a great deal of Hölderlin’s prose and poetic works at school and in 1861 wrote an essay praising the then unknown. ed. between.e. If the Greeks had not defeated Darius.RICHARD WAGNER AND THE BIRTH OF THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY 27 28 29 30 31 and Lohengrin. a lecture of 1871 (KSA I. Nietzsche reflects in his notebooks. one. In ‘Bread and Wine’ he asks ‘What are poets for in destitute times?’ and answers that they are ‘like the wine-god’s [i. Nietzsche also construes the pre-tragic art of Homer as an overcoming of nausea. Colli and M. 341. which strikes me as more interesting than the slightly different formulation given in The Birth itself (BT 3). cit. however. Dionysus’] holy priests/who roamed from land to land in holy night’. despised.

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